Forgiveness works beautifully when the offender repents, and the one offended can set aside hurt. This process is the critical ingredient for growth in faith, growth in character, and growth in a relationship.
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. II Chronicles 7: 14
Through no merit of our own, God brings healing and growth out of the process of forgiveness. This truth is His promise, found in the comfort and glory of His mercy.
But, as dedicated sinners, we continually find ways to throw a wrench into the works. It is not unusual for us to find ourselves in a situation of persistent hurt, a situation where the change of behavior found in repentance is not likely to happen. We have people in our lives we know will hurt us again and again. We feel there is no hope to stop the pain and turmoil.
Forgiving becomes a particular challenge when the person hurting does not repent. We know the pain will come again. In such cases, the advice of the world is to withhold forgiveness.
Consider a wayward child obsessed with his own needs and struggles. He may refrain from repentance and continue in the actions that bring harm and hurt to himself and his family. Should he be forgiven when there is no evidence of repentance?
What about that person at work who, for reasons not known, continually stabs people in the back, making them look bad in front of others. Should she be forgiven in light of her motives?
What about the spouse that is once again, unfaithful, and assumes that the appearance of repentance is enough to earn forgiveness? Should this person be forgiven when his promise to change is not sincere?
We know the answers should be "yes," but our heart is reluctant. Instead, we sit in our pain, nurse it, and soon we harden our hearts. Our hearts reject hope, and then they reject the offender.
The world tells us this is a good thing to do. Social media memes tell us that rejecting the repeat offender is healthy for the one who is hurt and offers the opportunity to heal. Cultural wisdom says we deserve better and that if we don't assert ourselves, we will hurt ourselves. The world says to stand up to those who hurt you to fight back, or at least walk away from that pain. The world says to have faith in you, in your value, in your strength.
The world is wrong. God is not happy to see His children cause each other pain, but His plan for dealing with persistent hurt does not just involve the one being hurt. He wants better for His children than brokenness. His love for us sees past our hurt toward a plan for a better life.
Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22
When we sit in our anger and pain, or when we cast it off by walking away, we hurt ourselves in ways we cannot imagine. Anger and hurt are two emotions that stop us from feeling empathy. When the offender continues to hurt, we continue to feel anger. Gradually we lose the ability to empathize with the person causing the pain.
In most situations of sin, we want to forgive, but also find a way to disciple, or teach, the offender how to not repeat the offense. In cases of persistent hurt, sin that is tied to emotional brokenness, and sometimes mental illness, there is rarely hope for changing the behavior of the offender. If we lose empathy, we do not so much walk away from pain as we walk away from the opportunity to repair the brokenness.
We need to take control of emotion to stop it from hurting us or damaging relationships. When we work with someone who repeatedly hurts us, it is one of the most challenging times to take control of our emotions. This control is hard won; found only in repetitive action.
So what is God's answer to chronic hurt? It is persistent forgiveness.
I am not advocating for simply allowing someone to continue to hurt you. It is healthy to protect yourself from abuse. However, forgiveness allows us to protect ourselves without losing empathy for the one who causes pain. If we do not understand their brokenness, we will not understand ours.
Forgive the person who hurts you. Pray for them. Look for ways to serve them. Do not serve to create guilt, but serve because God asks you to. In these actions, your ability to feel empathy for this person will grow. This empathy will give insight into their struggle as well as your own. The message your brain receives is that forgiveness is more important than anger or hurt. That sounds like healing to me.
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6: 1-2
The world says to fight back and to protect yourself. God says to restore and bear burdens. Here we find very different techniques with very different outcomes. The world champions one; the other is a strenuous walk of trust and faith.
Fall into God's path to healing.